Auston Matthews' Blueprint to Be the No. 1 Pick of the 2016 NHL Draft

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistAugust 7, 2015

MONTREAL, QC - DECEMBER 28:  Auston Matthews #34 of Team United States skates with the puck during the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship game against Team Germany at the Bell Centre on December 28, 2014 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  Team United States defeated Team Germany 6-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

After months of speculation, the ZSC Lions confirmed what many had been expecting. Auston Matthews, the consensus choice as the probable No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL draft, will spend his draft year playing in Switzerland’s top professional hockey league:

ZSC Lions @zsclions

Guess who's coming to Zurich? #greatnews @A_Matthews34 http://t.co/xdDwnq3Ii4

It’s a groundbreaking decision.

It’s typical for European teenagers to come to North American junior leagues both to raise their profiles with NHL teams and get a head start on adapting to the game as it’s played on this side of the Atlantic. It’s extremely rare for the flow of talent to go in the other direction.

Matthews’ choice raises a lot of issues, but perhaps the most critical is what this does to his value on draft day next year.

At this point, he’s the consensus No. 1 selection, but there’s a lot of ground still to be covered in the race to the 2016 draft, and he’ll need to confirm that status with a strong campaign in Switzerland. What would such a season look like?

The obvious answer would be to go back and look at what top Swiss players have done in their draft years. There’s just one problem: Very few top Swiss players actually get drafted out of their home country.

Kevin Fiala
Kevin FialaMatt Slocum/Associated Press

Timo Meier, picked ninth overall by San Jose this summer, played his last hockey in Switzerland at age 16. That’s when he came over to Canada to play junior hockey with the Halifax Mooseheads. Kevin Fiala, drafted 11th overall by Nashville a year ago, stayed in Europe but jumped to Sweden for two seasons leading up to his draft day.

To find the last first-rounder to be drafted out of Switzerland, one must go all the way back to 1999, when the Toronto Maple Leafs picked Luca Cereda 24th overall.

Fortunately, there’s another way to do this.

One of the more useful tools developed by stats writers has been a set of league translations.

In 2004, Gabriel Desjardins created a translation factor based on the performances of players who had played in one league and then gone on to the NHL. In 2013, Rob Vollman went back over those numbers to see if they had changed in recent years and published the results in his book, Hockey Abstract.

Using those translations, we can compare the offensive production of recent top forward picks in their leagues to get an idea of what Matthews will need to produce for Zurich if he is to retain his No. 1 overall ranking:

82-Game NHL Equivalencies for Highest-Drafted Forwards
Connor McDavid1st, 2015OHL4712059
Sam Reinhart2nd, 2014WHL6010537
Nathan MacKinnon1st, 2013QMJHL447536
Nail Yakupov1st, 2012OHL426938
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins1st, 2011WHL6910633
Taylor Hall1st, 2010OHL5710643
John Tavares1st, 2009OHL5610443
Steven Stamkos1st, 2008OHL6110540
Patrick Kane1st, 2007OHL5814557
Jordan Staal2nd, 2006OHL686823
Sidney Crosby1st, 2005QMJHL6216858
Alex Ovechkin1st, 2004RSL532330
Eric Staal2nd, 2003OHL669834
Rick Nash1st, 2002OHL547231
Source: Elite Prospects

The average player on this list puts together a season which equates to roughly 40 points over 82 NHL games. That would work out to 59 points over a 50-game season in Switzerland’s top league.

Alex Ovechkin
Alex OvechkinKARL DEBLAKER/Associated Press

There is an issue, thoughan issue nicely highlighted by Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin has one of the lowest translation numbers on this list, yet he was regarded not just as a No. 1 pick but a generational talent. So why was his point production so low, relatively speaking?

The issue is with the translations.

Players graduating from junior to the NHL are by definition extremely young. The gap between what a player is as an 18-year-old in the OHL and a 19-year-old in the majors can be wide because that player is improving rapidly. That rapid improvement shows in the translations.

In contrast, players coming from European pro leagues are often much older. It’s common for players in their mid- and even late 20s to make the jump to North America. The 26-year-old KHLer who makes his NHL debut at 27 simply doesn’t improve year over year the way our teenager did.

As a result, teenagers playing in professional leagues often look less impressive by these translations than they really should.

So let’s reset. If Matthews were to post an equivalent season to Ovechkin, what would that look like? It’s admittedly a high bar, as Ovechkin was an above-average No. 1 pick, but top Russian leagues have always been reluctant to play youth, and Matthews will likely have an easier time convincing Zurich’s Marc Crawford to use him, so it shouldn’t be too far off.

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 02:  Auston Matthews #34 of Team United States wraps around the net of Igor Shesterkin #30 of Team Russia in a quarterfinal round during the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships at the Bell Centre on January 2, 2015 in Montre
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Using Ovechkin’s 30-point equivalency as a baseline, we end up with Matthews needing to score a little less than 0.9 points/game, or roughly 45 points over a full 50-game Swiss season.

If he’s in that range, NHL teams can be comfortable that he’s producing the way a No. 1 pick should.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.


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